Racial Lines in County Blur but Could Return : Population: Times study of census finds communities far more mixed. Some experts fear new ethnic divisions.


The Los Angeles County documented in the 1990 Census is a metropolis in motion, a place where dramatic population shifts are breaking down old strongholds of racial and ethnic separatism but perhaps laying the foundation for new ones.

The traditional boundaries have blurred in a variety of ways. An expanding Latino population has begun to overtake black majorities in Watts and other areas of South-Central Los Angeles, while challenging Anglo dominance of several San Fernando Valley communities. Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants have poured into what were once all-white, middle-class neighborhoods in the San Gabriel Valley. The county’s northern tier--cities such as Palmdale, Lancaster and Santa Clarita--has emerged as the last frontier of Anglo growth.

These conclusions are based on a detailed Los Angeles Times computer study of 1990 Census data conducted by Richard O’Reilly, director of computer analysis. The Times study looked at population movement and ethnic distribution in the county’s 1,652 census tracts, units of population that contain from 2,500 to 8,000 people.


The study found that the breakdown of racial separatism--though far from complete--is especially conspicuous among blacks who have left inner-city neighborhoods in droves and established a growing presence in scores of traditionally white suburbs. The black population grew in more than 100 of the county’s 163 communities. The proportion of blacks in predominantly black neighborhoods was only 13% in 1990 compared to 35% in 1980. The analysis also found a similar trend among Anglos; 30% are living in largely white neighborhoods as opposed to 47% a decade ago.

“In a span of one generation, the social landscape has undergone a transformation of major proportions as L.A. has emerged as a truly pluralistic society,” Paul Ong, an associate professor of urban planning at UCLA, wrote in a recently completed paper on living patterns in the county. Ong reached conclusions similar to those of The Times in his own study of new census data.

Besides a leveling off of the black population, which grew by only 1%, the decade also saw an 8% drop in the Anglo population, a 62% increase in Latinos and a 119% surge in Asians.

The ebb and flow of ethnic groups has led to what appears to be a balanced distribution of blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos in several areas, from aging South Bay suburbs to new housing developments in the San Gabriel Valley.

The new census data, however, is subject to interpretation. Some demographers suspect that the decennial survey only reflects a temporary ethnic balance that may give way to a new era of segregation. This theory foresees expanding Latino and Asian majorities that will come to prevail in more and more communities.

Whatever the outcome, there is no question that Los Angeles County and its more than 8 million inhabitants are undergoing tumultuous change. Southern California always has stood for novelty in American life, but as waves of newcomers wash through such communities as Glendale, Walnut and Watts, two or three times in the same decade, the region has developed something of an identity crisis.

Relations throughout the county run the gamut from violence to romance, from Lawndale’s Leuzinger High School, where Latinos and blacks have been going at each other with knives and screwdrivers, to the public high schools in racially mixed Rowland Heights where, according to school superintendent Sharon Robison, “everybody dates everybody.”

A “Kosher Burrito” stand across from City Hall in downtown Los Angeles once symbolized the city’s quirkiness; today it represents the mixed character of the entire county. Just down the street, a Japanese barbershop advertises hair styling for blacks. In Van Nuys, a Buddhist shrine has been erected in the parking lot of a mini-mall. In Long Beach, a Cambodian cultural center occupies a building that was a Latino community center and originally a neighborhood movie theater.

Much of this is in contrast with the community portrait sketched by the 1980 Census. Then, a Times analysis concluded that the county was one of the nation’s most segregated. Sociologists Douglas S. Massey of the University of Chicago and Nancy Denton of the State University of New York at Albany reached a similar conclusion in an article on “hypersegregation,” describing Los Angeles as one of the 10 most segregated metropolitan regions in the country.

The county’s new ethnic mix is most apparent in suburban locales. The best examples are Duarte and West Covina, bedroom communities in the San Gabriel Valley where the ethnic distribution comes closest to countywide proportions--41% Anglo, 38% Latino, 11% African-American and 10% Asian.

In the midst of the county’s cultural metamorphosis, there are places that have stayed the same and communities that have taken on entirely new identities, a sometimes painful process. Well-to-do Westside communities such as Brentwood, Pacific Palisades, Beverly Hills and Bel-Air have remained overwhelmingly Anglo, but affluence isn’t necessarily a key to stability.

Virtually overnight, San Marino, a small, exclusive community of old California families southeast of Pasadena, has become home to a new Asian-American gentry: wealthy businessmen and their families from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Few communities have changed so fast. Asians, less than 7% of the population in 1980, now make up more than a third of the community, while local school enrollment is more than 50% Asian.

San Marino “is like Beverly Hills to Asians,” said Linda Chang, an American-born Asian who is a real estate agent in San Marino.

Yet the newcomers’ attitude toward the community’s natural wealth--its stately aisles of gnarled oaks, carob, camphor, ginkgo and other exotic trees--has led to tensions.

“Asians do tend to cut down trees,” Chang said, “it’s not that they don’t like trees. But it is bad luck to have trees as you open the front door.” Responding to a rash of tree cutting, the City Council required people to get permission before removing trees from their front yards.

Asians have brought more than ancient beliefs to San Marino. Their passion for education has helped make a first-rate school system even better, according to Anglo educators.

“The schools here were always good,” said Don Bendarus, principal of San Marino High School. “Now it is extraordinary, and it is due to the influence of the Asians. . . . They have raised (standardized) test scores and increased the academic intensity of the place. But it’s not just Asians who are working hard. In the face of stiffer competition, Anglo students are also taking school more seriously.”

Just west of San Marino and north of the Foothill Freeway is Glendale, a city of 180,000 people where ethnic diversity is the result of waves of refugees from places ravaged by revolution, war and disaster. The pace of change has tested the ingenuity of the community and its school system.

A town with tranquil, Midwestern roots that once prided itself on being the antithesis of Los Angeles, Glendale has undergone three major population influxes in the last two decades: Cubans fleeing the dictatorship of Fidel Castro; Vietnamese escaping the aftermath of war in the 1970s, and, in the last three or four years, Armenians seeking sanctuary outside the Soviet Union and the political instability of the Middle East.

In fact, the census data offers only a suggestion of the cultural mosaic that is Glendale. According to the 1990 Census, Glendale is still overwhelmingly Anglo--63%. Yet included in the Anglo count are the Armenians. Two years ago, Armenians and other students from the Middle East replaced Latinos as the largest ethnic group in the Glendale Unified School District.

Similarly, the census shows the community’s Asian population to be 14% in 1990--more than triple what it was in 1980. But within that Asian group are many distinct cultures. According to the school district, Koreans are the largest group, followed by Pacific Islanders and Filipinos. Latinos comprised 21% of Glendale’s population in 1990 and included Mexicans, Central Americans, South Americans and Spaniards.

People have come to Glendale for a variety of reasons, said Alice Petrossian, director of intercultural education for the school district. It is the next step up for many Armenians, whose first stop was a cheap Hollywood apartment house. “As they prosper and move up the economic ladder,” Petrossian said, “they come to Glendale. Why do they come here? Because Glendale is the center of long-established Armenian communities in Hollywood, Montebello, Pasadena and Encino. They live here, and they can be near their families.”

While the 1990 Census parted the curtain on a new, more diverse society in Los Angeles, population experts remain cautious about what the future may hold. A city such as Carson illustrates the uncertainty.

North of Long Beach, along the booming South Bay corridor, the city of 84,000 residents is divided almost equally among blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos. But it is an unstable population, with the Anglo share dropping by almost one-third since 1980 and blacks also losing ground. If present trends continue, the ethnic balance may give way by the next census to domination by Latinos and Asians.

Variations on the Carson theme may be played out in a number of communities where new Asian and Latino majorities appear to be in the making.

In 1980, there was only one community with an Asian population of over 30%--Monterey Park. Today there are 10 such places, and the Asian population of each is still growing. For now, Monterey Park is the only community with an Asian majority, 56%.

As the Latino population grows larger, it is also becoming more concentrated--more evidence of a new round of segregation on the horizon. Ten years ago, only 17% of the county’s Latinos lived in communities where Latinos were in a large majority, 80%. Today, 27% of the Latino population lives in such places. Since 1980 there are more than a dozen communities with new Latino majorities, from Pomona in the east San Gabriel Valley to Silver Lake near downtown Los Angeles, from Paramount in the southeastern part of the county to Sylmar in the northeast San Fernando Valley.

Despite signs of a dispersing black population, some experts are not ready to declare victory over segregation of that race. They point out that over 40% of the county’s black population still live in inner-city neighborhoods--places that may be more ethnically diverse than before, but that still bear the social and economic stigma of segregation.

“While the changes in the residential patterns of African-Americans indicate some progress in housing integration, Los Angeles is far from being fully racially integrated,” Ong said in his otherwise upbeat report.

According to James Johnson, director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, the movement of blacks to the county’s suburbs is unlikely to grow.

“I think housing prices may prevent any large-scale migration of African-Americans to the nearby suburbs,” Johnson said.

Like others, Johnson believes that the flight from the inner city will tend to take blacks out of the county altogether, to places such as Riverside County, where lower housing prices helped boost the black population by nearly 100% during the last 10 years.

For many blacks who have been able to afford life in Los Angeles County suburbs, moving out of the inner city has not spelled an end to feelings of cultural deprivation.

Wendy Wilson and her husband moved to the San Fernando Valley over a decade ago. Originally from Pennsylvania, the Wilsons arrived in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. They first took an apartment in the inner city. But Wilson hated “the concrete and crime,” the “commercialism and close quarters” of the city. The family moved first to Encino, an overwhelmingly white neighborhood northwest of the city, then to Northridge, where the black population now approaches 2,000--40% larger than in 1980. In the Wilsons’ immediate neighborhood there are, according to the 1990 Census, 136 blacks, 659 Latinos, 2,567 Asians and 8,003 Anglos.

Wilson said her family has not experienced much, if any, racism in the suburbs. At the same time, they miss a sense of kinship with other blacks, even the few they occasionally see at neighborhood stores. “Where I come from,” she said, “there is always a look, a nod, some gesture of courtesy to acknowledge this visible bond we have--that is, the color of our skin.”

Because such gestures of friendship are not often extended in the suburbs, Wilson said, she has decided to begin commuting 40 minutes back into the city on Sundays so that her 3-year-old twin boys can attend a black church. There, she hopes, they will begin developing some sense of their heritage.

There are other ways in which people try to hold on to the past--to values, languages, foods--left behind in old neighborhoods and distant homelands.

Throughout the San Gabriel Valley, for instance, Chinese families are coming together to teach their American-born a cherished second language: Chinese.

For second- and third-generation Jewish immigrants, intermarriage has long been a source of concern. Now it is becoming a fundamental issue for Los Angeles Armenians--three out of four of whom now marry outside their culture. To counter the trend, Armenians have established dozens of day schools, musical societies, dramatic clubs, political organizations--"all intended to perpetuate the culture for as long as possible,” said Richard Hovannisian, a UCLA professor who specializes in modern Armenian history.

Often with sadness but usually with a sense of resignation about the inevitable, others are letting go of the past, succumbing to the sometimes tedious, sometimes frenetic pace of Southern California’s freeway culture.

For Vicki Tamoush, of Lebanese and Syrian ancestry, becoming a part of L.A. culture has meant losing a cherished Arab custom.

“In Arab countries, time and daily schedules are different,” Tamoush said. “For example, it’s very common to take a two- to four-hour break in the afternoon. It is a time when mother, father and children are all together. But it is impossible to have that sort of respite here, and as a result, I think a time of real family closeness is lost.”

Like individuals, institutions made rapid adjustments to keep pace. Faced with students who speak over 80 languages, public schools search for new teachers, new teaching methods and new library books--in Spanish, Portuguese, Urdu, Punjabi, Javanese. Inundated by cases of giardia and tuberculosis, county health clinics have had to cope with diseases not seen for years, if ever, in North America. Confronted by new kinds of patients with new kinds of problems, mental health clinics have had to help frightened and sometimes hostile people try to come to terms with traumatic pasts and uncertain futures.

Businesses, too, must make adjustments.

Cambodian-born store owner Mony Nou and his family first set up shop in a boarded-up business district on Anaheim Street in Long Beach, opening a tiny convenience store that catered to Asians.

At first Nou’s Angkor Market did well just selling dried fish, canned bananas and 50-pound bags of fragrant rice. But soon, Nou realized, that was not enough. Somehow the neighborhood had changed. There were black faces on the street. People who spoke Spanish were opening restaurants nearby.

To stay in business, Nou had to change his stock. To the bags of rice, he added tortillas, cans of menudo, jars of pigs feet, packages of Twinkies.

It’s on Anaheim and streets like it across the county, Nou realized, where the limits of the new integration are tested. Asians, Latinos and blacks may now shop at the same markets and, on occasion, eat at the same restaurants. They even live in houses next door to one another. But he also observed that they rarely, if ever, will be found in the same apartment buildings.

“The reason is simple,” Nou said. “They’d have to enter through the same door.”

For many in Los Angeles, becoming attuned to cultural differences has become part of the daily routine.

For 50 years, the Ward family of Long Beach has owned and operated Ward’s Furniture Store at the same location on Pacific Avenue. During much of that time, they sold almost exclusively to an upper middle-class Anglo clientele.

Recognizing a few years ago that the adjacent neighborhood had become almost 50% working-class Latinos, the Wards began sending out advertising mailers in Spanish. They hired a Latino salesman. They changed their stock to suit the disparate tastes of the clientele: floral couches for Anglo customers; velvet sectionals for Latinos.

“Every time we sell one of these, my father says ‘Hallelujah,’ ” said Brad Ward, a grandson of the original owner, pointing to a sectional with a built-in stereo system. But the younger Ward has no desire to quibble over customer tastes. After all, he said: “The Hispanics kept us out of the recession.”